A FORMER Saints youth coach, described as a “predatory paedophile”, carried out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against teenage boys he trained, a jury has been told.

For 25 years, Robert ‘Bob’ Higgins exercised his “supreme power” over aspiring footballers, allegedly indecently assaulting 24 boys in his home, car and during training courses and massages.

The 65-year-old “serial abuser” is alleged to have used his position to influence and manipulate the youngsters, forcing them to take part in the abuse for fear of their footballing futures.

Prosecutor Adam Feest QC told Salisbury Crown Court yesterday that Higgins, who denies 50 charges of indecent assault, “developed a real, if somewhat perverse, affectionate attachment, telling them that he loved them and getting them to display signs of affection towards him”.

Higgins, a “talented coach” at Southampton Football Club between the mid 1970s until the late 1980s, was “idolised” by the teenagers.

Mr Feest QC said: “He gained the trust of the boys and their parents… he held supreme power over their footballing futures, a fact which he made abundantly clear to them.

“The boys realised that they needed to impress their coach, and particularly those with slightly less footballing talent, to keep in his good books both on and off the training pitches.”

He added: “Once their trust had been gained and their devotion to him made absolute, this predatory paedophile with a sexual interest in young teenage boys was able to act with near impunity.

“After all, if any of these boys did ever complain, thereby putting any hopes they may have of playing professional football in serious jeopardy, who would believe them bearing in mind the position the defendant held and the prevailing atmosphere that existed at the time about this type of offending?”

Higgins’ alleged offending came to light after an NSPCC helpline was launched in 2016, when a former Crewe Alexandra footballer made disclosures about sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a member of the coaching staff when he was younger.

Mr Feest QC said: “The telephone started ringing, and among other names, one was mentioned over and over again… that of Bob Higgins”.

Higgins, who also worked for the Maltese Football Association and Peterborough United Football Club, was described by the prosecution as being a “talented coach”, able to “spot and nurture” young players who went on to achieve success within the game.

The prosecution said Higgins’ reputation was so high among teenagers, they would often turn down more prestigious clubs so they could train with him at Southampton Football Club, believing it would give them the best chance of becoming a professional footballer.

However, Higgins then allegedly abused the victims, who cannot be named for legal reasons, after gaining their trust.

“As the calls came in to the helpline and were then pursued and investigated by the police, a process which in itself led to the discovery of other victims, a clear picture emerged,” Mr Feest QC said.

“Particular types of behaviour came to light time and time again from people who did not know each other, did know each other or had not spoken for years since their footballing days – being touched during naked soapy water massages; lying with their heads on his lap in a car while he either groped himself or tried to fondle them; getting sexually assaulted under the pretext of being shown a training drill or being examined for injury.”

For most of the victims, now all grown men, it was the first time they had been able to come forward about what happened, the court heard.

The court was told Higgins was investigated for similar offences in 1990 and found not guilty at trial.

These charges related to alleged offences carried out between 1971 and 1996.

Higgins, of Southampton, has pleaded not guilty.

The trial, which is expected to last about eight weeks, continues.